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inter spem et metum

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She didn’t see it happen.  She was too busy slicing the head off her attacker, and while she had heard him grunt, he grunted a lot when they were fighting.

 

But this time when she spun around, she saw him lying in the snow, a red stain on his clothing.

 

“Rokurou!”

 

With his dying –

 

(No, don’t think that, he’s fine, he’s a daemon, this isn’t even your fault if he is because he made the choice and he didn’t keep his guard up.)

 

– breath, he must have slain the beast he was grappling with.  Its bloody corpse was only inches away.

 

He was unconscious.  Velvet slapped his face a few times, trying to rouse him, but to no avail.  So she undid and untucked and moved aside his clothing to get to the wound, mindful of the blade that was still stuck in him.  At the very least, that was a blessing.  She knew to leave it – removing it would cause more damage, and at the moment, it was helping slow the bleeding.

 

A feeling of helplessness washed over her.  She wasn’t a healer, and she didn’t know much of anything about daemon injuries.  Could she treat them just like a human’s?

 

He let out a small grunt but didn’t seem to be waking up.  Even if he did come to, he couldn’t walk like this.  They were still too far from Hellawes.  

 

( Leave him.)

 

It was the smart decision, the logical decision.  The reasonable, rational decision.  She had told him that if he started to slow her down or get in her way, she would leave him behind without a second thought.  Avenging her brother’s death was the only thing that mattered.  A week ago, she hadn’t even known this man existed.  There was no reason to stay with him and watch him die.

 

Which was going to happen.  She couldn’t help him.

 

Velvet stood, drawing in a deep breath and turning back to the road.

 

Maybe someone else would come by and help him, she thought, as she took the first step away. Someone who knew what to do.  She had no time to play nurse to a man who she had never asked to come with her to begin with.  A man who would probably do exactly the same thing she was doing now, if the situations were reversed.  He would –

 

(Pick you up in his arms, haul you into one of the small villages between here and Hellawes, find someone who would help you, threaten and kill if need be. Because he says he owes a debt that he can’t repay if you’re dead.  Because he’s a fighter.  Because he would consider this a failure.)

 

With a sharp yell, she flipped out her blade and slammed it into a tree, cutting a deep gash into it.  She turned around, part of her almost hoping he was already dead when she returned to his body.  But he was still breathing, moaning softly.  Still not awake.

 

As carefully as she could without disrupting his wound, she broke the handle of the knife off.  Most of his clothing was still in decent condition – she could show him how to wash the blood out later – so she ripped off strips from her own tattered cape to bandage and secure what remained.  

 

Belatedly, she realized a healer might not be willing to treat a daemon, and the right side of his face made it fairly obvious.  She tore off more of her cape to wrap up the red and black markings, leaving his good eye and nose still exposed.  It took some maneuvering to get him over her shoulder so that she wasn’t jostling the knife the entire way, but she managed.

 

She felt him starting to shiver as they got closer.  Whether it was because he had lied about the cold affecting him or he was going into shock, she didn’t know.  But it was irritating, so she picked up the pace.

 

Her body ached as she made it into the town, but it didn’t take long for her to get attention.  Velvet snarled at them to be careful as three men hoisted Rokurou off her shoulders.  He groaned as they moved him, so he was still alive.  And even though it was a small village, they said they had a healer.  

 

When they reached the healer’s home, she prepared for resistance.  The moment anyone suspected the two of them were what they were, there could be trouble.  But the woman simply introduced herself as Galena and told the men to place Rokurou on the bed, then shooed them away.  She told Velvet to leave, too, but that clearly wasn’t happening.  

 

If he woke up and was delirious, he might say something stupid, after all.  She had to stick around to make sure he didn’t reveal she was a daemon who just escaped from prison.  

 

With her assistance, Galena quickly removed the makeshift bandage, his robe, and other garments from his upper body.  Velvet stopped her before she unwrapped his head.

 

“Don’t touch that one.”

 

She hesitated, but didn’t attempt to disobey.

 

“If you’re going to stay, then at least hold his hand.  Sometimes it helps.”

 

“Uh, no, it’s not like that.”

 

“He doesn’t have to be your husband for it to work.”  Galena grabbed Velvet’s hand before she realized what was happening and placed it on top of Rokurou’s.  “Do you need to be attended to, as well?”

 

She glanced down at her other arm; some of his blood had gotten on the bandage.  “No.  It’s … it’s his.”

 

At that, the healer fell silent, a soft yellow glow illuminating the room as she cast the artes needed to remove the blade without further damage.  He grunted and started to stir once it was out, so she reached into a canister and pulled out a few purple leaves.

 

“Here,” she said as she handed them to Velvet.  “See if you can get him to chew on these.”

 

“Why?”

 

“It’ll help with the pain.  I can only do so much.”

 

As she took a closer look, she recognized them; ones Aball’s own healer had given to … her family to give to Laphicet.  The leaves had helped, although they were cautioned not to use them too often, as one could become addicted.  

 

Velvet put a hand on his cheek, so she could gently pry his mouth open with her thumb.  Behind her, Galena was humming softly.  She placed the leaf so it was barely in between his teeth – if he bit off too much, he could choke.

 

“Hey.  Rokurou.”  

 

“Dunno if I can prac’s ‘day, Shigure,” he mumbled.  “Hurts.”

 

“Chew on this.”

 

“Not h’ngry.”

 

“Not food,” she snapped.  “It’ll help with the pain.”

 

He finally opened his eyes at that, staring at her in hazy confusion for a while.  But then he blinked and lifted his head, looking down at where Galena was still working on him.  Wisps of black smoke were rising up from his wound – contaminants, maybe.  The bits of things that would make a wound fester.  Although she didn’t even know if daemons had to worry about such things.  It smelled like meat roasting on a spit, and if Velvet had any appetite, that might have squashed it.

 

“What happened?”

 

“You need to learn how to dodge.”  She nudged the leaf in his mouth again and he complied, gnawing on it a bit.  Then inexplicably, he grinned up at her.  It was too soon for the herb to be kicking in.  Galena let out a soft sigh.

 

“That should take care of that, but I have a paste I want you to apply three times a day.  It’ll help with the scarring.”

 

“You didn’t leave me,” he said, after the door closed behind Galena.

 

( But you should have, should have left him there, doesn’t make sense to waste all this time, a traveler would have come along and found him … and probably killed him on sight once it was discovered he was a daemon.)

 

“Wasn’t an option,” she heard herself say.  “I don’t trust you.  If someone discovered you and healed you, you might have sold me out.”

 

His smile wavered, but didn’t entirely fade away.  He echoed her own words – “Wasn’t an option, Velvet.”

 

“What if they tortured you?  You wouldn’t suffer to save a stranger.  Or die for one.”

 

“Yeah, probably not.  But I won’t betray you.  I owe you that much, at least.”

 

“You’re an idiot.”  Because he was .  If someone caught up to her and was planning to torture her for information on him, she wouldn’t hesitate to give them whatever they wanted, if it meant she got to stay alive and finish her task.

 

Galena returned with jar that contained a dark purple paste and gave him instructions on how to use it, although Velvet doubted Rokurou would bother.  He probably thought a scar would look impressive.

 

She didn’t like the look the healer gave her, though.  Something was wrong.  He could sense it, too, if the way he squeezed her hand was any indication.

 

“Go,” he said, so softly she almost didn’t hear it.  But she didn’t question him.  He released her hand and she dove for the window, breaking through the glass and the wood and landing on her hands and knees outside.  She turned around to see if he was following, but all she could see was a flurry of movement inside, and then arms reaching out to grab her.  She extended her blade and cut the left one clean off.

 

At least the response time for their healer would be quick.  Galena could probably reattach it.

 

A few more loud grunts and then Rokurou was launching himself out the window, his clothes in his hand.  She didn’t have time to react, and although he twisted his body to try to avoid it, he ended up landing on top of her.  But before she could start to panic, he rolled off her and apologized.  

 

“I take it they figured out we’re daemons,” he said in a breathless voice as they bolted for the path out of town.

 

“That would be my guess.”  She glanced behind them and was surprised to see nobody was following them.  They didn’t slow down, however, until they were a safe distance away.  He put his shirt and kimono back on, examining the tear from the knife and the resulting bloodstains.

 

“Ah, this was my favorite one, too.”

 

“Find me a needle and some thread, I can sew it up so well nobody will be able to tell it was ever cut, and vinegar can get the blood out.  Prickleboar blood, at least.  It’s probably the same with humans.”

 

He gave her a wide smile that sent a shiver down her spine.  She didn’t know why; he hardly scared her.

 

“What?” she snapped at him.

 

“You declared that you’re nothing but a blood-thirsty daemon, but you’re offering to help me clean up my kimono.”

 

She scoffed.  “If you walk around with bloody and torn clothes, you’ll draw attention to us.  That’s all.”

 

Rokurou’s grin faded a little, but not completely.  There was still a sparkle in his eye.  “Yeah … we can’t be walking around with torn clothing.”

 

It took her several moments to realize he was referencing her own battered clothing.  He seemed amused, but it wasn’t like he was making fun of her.  His face was still open and friendly.  

 

“It’s different,” she snapped.  Somehow.  “I need to take care of something.  Wait here. I’ll be right back.”  Hopefully he assumed she had to relieve herself and kept his distance.  When she was certain she was out of earshot, she slammed her fist into a tree as hard as she could.  Tears fell from her eyes for no good reason.

 

(You nearly died trying to save him.  One stupid act of charity and your mission could have been over before it truly started.  You can’t get soft like that again.  Fool!)

 

Her fist grew warm as her arm threatened to unleash itself.  Saliva dripped from her mouth as she snarled, as she regained control.  She had to be willing to sacrifice him.  Anyone.  The entire world if necessary.  The only feeling she was allowed to have was rage.  Nothing else.  Sentiment was unacceptable.    

 

She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

 

(fin.)